It amazes me that I haven't read this book before, considering that I once thought Thornton Wilder was the greatest living writer. (That was when he was living, and I was 16.) Like everybody else's, my high school put on a production of Our Town. I was in it, playing three parts: Professor Willard (who comes out in the first act and gives a boring little monologue about the geological, historical, and ethnographic features of Grover's Corners), Si Crowell (the newsboy who exchanges a few words with the milkman at the beginning of act two) and, in the cemetery scene in the third act, the Second Dead Man (who has one line, "A star's mighty good company," from which I tried to milk all manner of profundity until the director made me stop).
I fell in love with the play, and went on to read The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker. (The latter was musicalized into Hello, Dolly! but it's a pretty good play on its own. There's a charming film version of it, made in 1958, with Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Ford and Robert Morse.) Wilder's theatrical trick is to break the fourth wall: In each of his plays, someone comes out to talk directly to the audience -- the Stage Manager in Our Town, Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, Dolly in The Matchmaker. Somehow Wilder manages to make keep this from becoming over-didactic, but I think it betrays something essential about his craft: He thought of himself as more novelist (who manipulates the point of view) than playwright (who is forced to make the point of view that of the audience).
Which is a little sad, because if Wilder is known at all today, it's for his plays. He wrote seven novels, of which The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the second and still the best-known. It won him a Pulitzer Prize (as did Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, making him the only person to win Pulitzers for both fiction and drama) and it was No. 1 on the bestseller list, making him a rich man. (Okay, pause here to reflect on how different the bestseller list must have been in 1928 from what it is in 2009. From The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a subtle, sly work with roots in classical French and Spanish literature, to The Lost Symbol.)
Even if you've never read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, you probably know its setup, which is announced in the novel's opening sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." The novel then tells the stories of the five travelers, leading up to their fatal fall, and of Brother Juniper, who witnesses the accident and decides to examine these lives to discern what God's plan might have been in bringing about their simultaneous end.
Wilder tells the stories of the five people himself, rather than through what Brother Juniper discovers about them. Or rather, an omniscient narrator (not necessarily to be identified as Wilder, because the prose style of the narrative is faintly antique) tells their stories. Brother Juniper learns, "The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed." The surviving acquaintances of the deceased are reticent or unreliable: "Those who know most in this realm, venture least." And Brother Juniper comes only to the most banal of conclusions: "He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven." We, who have seen these lives in their full complexity and contradictions, are incapable of making such a conclusion.
Even so, for Brother Juniper, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, partly because he commits the heresy of using Enlightenment methods to acquire it.
It seemed to Brother Juniper that it was high time for theology to take its place among the exact sciences and he had long intended putting it there. ... [T]his collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state.
But then most readers will come to the account of the travelers on the bridge with similar expectations of finding a moral in the story. After all, one perennial nonfiction bestseller is When Bad Things Happen to Good People. We want to know what it means when catastrophe befalls the innocent. After the collapse of the bridge, Wilder writes, "People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf." And who of us didn't feel like that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?
That's why the last sentence of the book feels forced to me: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." I think Wilder set himself too large a task: to reflect upon the propensity to try justifying the ways of God to humankind. But fiction forces closure upon itself, and "the bridge is love" feels trite and sentimental. Moreover, it contradicts what Wilder himself wrote to a former student in a letter: "The book is not supposed to solve. ... Chekhov said, 'The business of literature is not to answer questions, but to state them fairly.'"
I think what kept Wilder from being one of the greats, like his contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was that he started with the idea and tried to find a story to go with it. Theodicy in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the place of ordinary people in the cosmos in Our Town, the arc of history in The Skin of Our Teeth -- big ideas all, threatening to smother the human element in a blanket of intellectualism. Of course, even the greats made that mistake -- think of Faulkner's A Fable or Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, works undermined by too much brooding on the cosmic, too much willingness to let symbolism supplant the simple elements of fiction: character and plot.
That said, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a storehouse of memorable characters and wonderful writing. Wilder acknowledged that he hadn't been to Peru, and that his sources were mostly French, not Spanish. And yet there are times when he seems to be anticipating the work of the great Latin American writers, such as Borges or García Márquez. Take this passage about the Marquesa de Montemayor, for example:
She combed the city for wise old women and poured into her letters the whole folkwisdom of the New World. She fell into the most abominable superstition. She practiced a degrading system of taboos for her child's protection. She refused to allow a knot in the house. The maids were forbidden to tie up their hair and she concealed upon her person ridiculous symbols of a happy delivery. On the stairs the even steps were marked with red chalk and a maid who accidentally stepped upon an even step was driven from the house with tears and screams.
Wilder has a way of slipping in breathtaking bits of detail, as in this description of the long-at-sea Captain Alvarado:
He was blackened and cured by all weathers. He stood in the Square with feet apart as though they were planted on a shifting deck. His eyes were strange, unaccustomed to the shorter range, too used to seizing the appearances of a constellation between a cloud and a cloud, and the outline of a cape in rain.
There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop.
It was the hour when bats fly low and the smaller animals play recklessly underfoot.
Now, I ask you: In what contemporary bestseller would you find writing like that?